The many ways to say “I”
One of the many unique and intriguing features of Japanese is the vast selection of words you have available to choose from when you want to say “I.” Each of these words has a different connotation reflecting the speaker’s view of his/herself and their relationship to the listener.
For this article, I’m going to introduce to you my personal collection of “I” words that I’ve encountered here in Japan (even if I’ve only seen them once or twice in obscure contexts). Hopefully, this list will help to prepare you for your own Japanese adventures.
Of the many ways to say “I” in Japanese, these are the ones that are actually used by real, living people who are being serious.
Watashi (私) is the standard, gender-free way to say “I” and is the first one learners are introduced to. If you don’t know which I-word to use, this is your best bet.
The only trap I know of is that in Japanese saying “watashi mo” (meaning: “me too”) can come off as very effeminate if you use it in an informal situation. Men should take care to say “boku mo” or use some other I-word instead.
Yes, the kanji is the same as for watashi (私) (watashi is actually just a shortened form of watakushi).
This word is a highly formal “I.” You might hear politicians, CEOs, or other public-relations figures use it when making official announcements, but generally you should avoid this word as it can come across as arrogant or condescending.
If you watch anime or read manga, you’ll notice that this is the I-word of choice for rich characters.
Boku (僕) is what you could think of as the “soft-masculine” I-word. It literally means “manservant” so when you use it there is a sense that you are humbling yourself before the speaker.
It has a more informal feeling than watashi, however, so you may want to be careful when using it with strangers, authority figures and colleagues.
Boku is used primarily by men, but very young and/or boyish girls sometimes use it too. I’ve also heard women use boku in song lyrics.
If boku is the “soft-masculine” I-word then ore (俺) is the “hard-masculine.” This is the word tough guys use, and as such you would almost never hear it used with a polite verb form.
It’s not polite by any stretch of the imagination, but to say it’s a “rude” word would be a mistake as well. Ore can actually convey a sense of intimacy (we’re close friends, so I don’t need to worry about being polite with you). This is probably the most common I-word among groups of men (except in business or other formal settings).
This is an informal effeminate form of watashi. It has a kind of “cute” nuance to it. Because kanji are generally seen as masculine, this word has no kanji form. It is written in either hiragana or katakana. (Well, the word does come from watashi so you might see it listed with 私 in a dictionary)
Uchi (内) is one word for “I” that I didn’t learn until well after I came to Japan, but once I did I was surprised at how commonly used it was. It literally means “inside.”
Saying uchi for “I” is informal and has no gender connotation. This is a good word for women to use if they want to be informal, but avoid the cuteness of atashi.
This is another popular and versatile way to say “I.” It literally means “this way.”
While kochira and kocchi are the same word (kocchi is an abbreviated version), they differ pretty dramatically in how formal they are. Kochira is highly polite and is often used in business situations, especially one the phone. Because of it’s root meaning of “this way” it is ambiguous in number, it can be used to mean “we” without any changes to the word.
Kocchi is much more informal and frequently used among friends. It’s also handy for its neutrality, meaning that when you use it you’re not making a statement about your social position relative to the listener (you are–however–still making a statement about social distance).
Note: similarly, you can use sochira/socchi to mean “you.”
Used more commonly in it’s “we” form (我々/wareware), ware (我) by itself and meaning just “I” is pretty uncommon, but not unheard of.
It’s also probably the the most difficult I-word in this post because depending on how you use it it can come out not only as “I” but either as “one’s self” (not necessarily the speaker), or even “you” (although usage as “you” is very dated).
My impression of this word is it has a kind of wise, sage-like feeling to it. It’s almost always used in a short, declarative statement of some kind.
This is yet a further shortening of the word watashi. It is reserved for use by old men or men who for some reason have acquired a very slurred speech style. Perhaps they dropped the ta to keep themselves from spitting on people when they talked.
In the Kansai region, this I-word can be further shortened to just wai.
While we don’t do this in English, in Japanese it’s possible to use your own personal name when saying “I.” Basically, you can speak in third person perspective. This manner of speaking is somewhat frowned upon as being childish, however, so be careful should you decide to use it. (it’s probably best if you simply don’t use this method altogether, just know that you might hear somebody else talking like this someday)
Be careful, because this second group of I-words are no longer used in modern Japanese (though Japanese know them through media and literature), and as such they will definitely alert your listener that you are consciously selecting your I word, usually either as a joke or to imitate some character. While they’re fun to know, don’t use these under regular circumstances.
Wagahai (吾輩) is a classical way to say “I” that was used by older men of high social stature. You will find this in the title of Natsume Soseki’s famous work, 吾輩は猫である (wagahai wa neko de aru / I am a cat).
Oira (おいら) is an alternate form of ore which was more widely used back in the Edo period. It was apparently used even by some women in the late-Edo period.
Today, this word has a youthful and male feeling to it (because of it’s youthful nature, it is rarely written in it’s kanji form: 己等), and is the I-word of choice for… housepets! (as spoken through their owners, of course…) Try a quick google image search for this word, it will bring up many pictures of Japanese peoples’ pets.
Sessha (拙者) is another classical way to a say “I” which literally means “clumsy person.” Samurai used this word, because being humble about their abilities was the samurai thing to do.
The word atai is a girls-only “I” word that is a shortened version of atashi. It originated with the courtesans, prostitutes and young girls from Tokyo’s pleasure quarters, but it seems that most people are unfamiliar with this history.
I believe there are some dialects and regions in Japan where this word can still be heard but I’m not sure exactly where… One of my Japanese friends that I asked said it sounded like a Kyuushuu dialect.
Yo (余) is yet another rarely used classical way to say “I.” It was used by men of extremely high stature. I’ve really only come across it being employed by “heartless-overlord”-type characters in some anime and manga.
Warawa (妾) is how a samurai’s wife would say “I.” It’s a classical female form, used by women to humble themselves before others. The kanji itself refers to a man’s non-primary wife or his mistress.
It’s both an intriguing and challenging aspect of Japanese to have so many options where in English we have only one. By learning to pay close attention to these words, we can pick up on valuable clues about a person’s social status and personality. And by learning to use the right I-words for each situation and partner, we can communicate with people and manage relationships more effectively.
(Unlike video game and anime characters) most people switch between a few different words as their situation demands. Personally, most of the time I stick to boku and watashi (I’ve been trying to use ore more with my guy friends lately, but old habits die hard). Sometimes I mix things up with a little uchi and kocchi, too.
This list is complete to the best of my knowledge (assuming I haven’t forgotten anything…), but I’m sure there’s probably a few more I-words floating around out there that I haven’t come across yet. I’ll be sure to update this list if I find any new ones.